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“‘Soul and Fire’ is the Ugly Manifestation of One’s Direst Worries for ‘Tree’”

Sebadoh might just be a rock band part of whose identity is immovably mythological. The people who know OF them, in other words, in all likelihood far outnumber the people who can actually name a favorite album of theirs and list reasons why, let alone a favorite song. In a lot of our hearts, they’ll always just exist as an ideal, more so than a reality — that scrappy, underdog, DIY [1] band fronted by the dude who got kicked out of Dinosaur Jr. (Lou Barlow).

The way the discourse seems to sometimes assemble things, then, Barlow exists as this sort of noble savage, impeccably embodying the ethos of indie rock and doing it the way it’s supposed to be done, essentially sacrificing popularity and ubiquity for ingenuous nurturing of underground rock. And a lot of this is partly true. The fact is though that everybody’s human and Barlow too wasn’t always above industry-borne petulance, holding specifically a marked distaste for the Pixies (and more than likely for their quasi-narcissistic frontman Black Francis) that he made little if any attempt to conceal in public [2]. 

Sebadoh did a lot of things well. One of these things was writing great, catchy songs. Another one of these things was toting this almost hilarious m.o. of songwriting plurality — pretty much every album of theirs that I’m aware of contains, succinct, docile pop songs from Lou Barlow and visceral madness bordering on Meat-Puppets-hardcore from bassist Jason Loewenstein, in addition to installments from yet another band member. This third songwriting contributor could be Eric Gaffney or Russell Pollard, depending on the album and the given point in the band’s lifespan.

In general, though, I don’t think anybody would deny that as an aspiringly significant indie rock firebrand they live and die by Lou Barlow — they go as he goes. He is their backbone, having written and sung their best song (“Flame”) and generally throughout their history woven out the band’s strongest, most poignant and memorable lyrical statements (his quip of “It’s a pornographic sunrise” later on that album The Sebadoh within the song “Thrive” comes to mind as particularly gripping, if in a slightly curious way).

In tandem with these instances of celestial brilliance, though, unfortunately comes a tendency toward sentimentality, which theoretically threatens [3] to lacerate “Tree” from The Sebadoh into goopy whininess, and sadly does indeed pollute the sound waves of “Soul and Fire,” the opener on the band’s otherwise fairly brilliant fourth LP Bubble & Scrape. It pretty much renders the song unlistenable, that is, how essentially anal Barlow is in his efforts to achieve this perfect, pure mind state [4], and to achieve a perfect relationship. 

The primary crux of his overall meandering here can I think be grounded in his proposition of whether his and his woman’s feelings for each other are “Infatuation… or true desire”. Earlier I allude to what I identify as his tendency toward “sentimentality,” which J.D. Salinger I think once somewhat jauntily described as “Attaching more importance to something than God does.” This sort of excessive, ham-handed obsession over the moral components of his relationship would certainly qualify, I would think, exacerbated by the fact that infatuation and desire are essentially the exact same thing. What’s more, he seems to extol the entity of “desire,” which would theoretically taint an otherwise pure (another ideal for Barlow) mind state and one in more strident accordance with the tenets of Zen — an ideological pillar of Eastern religion emphasizing a free, accepting state of mind. Oh, the perils of what sometimes seems to be the musician’s inability to be a lover. But “Soul and Fire” is a sorry attempt at a rock song, ostentatious and self-indulgent, and I think it has everything to do with Barlow’s apparent worship of the romantically rendered woman and failure to see her as the imperfect human we all are, in turn.  

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[1] It doesn’t get much more “do-it-yourself” than Sebadoh, who from the get-go produced their own albums with raw, organic live recordings, and, at least for a while, had no apparent ambition of scoring a hit single. 

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[2] Indeed, at least in my opinion, his spitefulness toward the Pixies reflects poorly on him as that was a band that made it fairly big on a major label, a notion entirely foreign for Sebadoh, and did so on the strength of a good ol’ batch of overwhelming originality.

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[3] I realize I’m using bizarre terminology here but the reason why I dub the song’s danger of becoming corny as “theoretical” is simpler than you might think — it actually is just a really tender ballad that’s disarmingly comfortable in its own benign, emotional skin.

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[4] Indeed, in the commendable track from their later album Harmacy, “Too Pure,” he makes the claim that “You can never be too pure / Or too connected”. Luckily, too, he swathes this doctrine in enough melody and songwriting flair so as to avoid coming off as preachy (don’t ask me how he does it, mind you). 

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